Fears that Mali is the new Afghanistan energising France

French soldiers at a Malian airbase in the capital, Bamako Photo: Reuter / Joe Penney

As is almost always the case, we have been here before.

At the turn of this century a rebel army threatened the capital of an African country and in went Western troops to salvage the situation.

In May 2000 the capital under siege was Freetown in Sierra Leone and the troops sent to prevent a takeover were British.

They were led by the then Brigadier David Richards. I remember well greeting him as he arrived in the fearful city to announce a limited operation to evacuate foreigners .

But Richards soon saw the opportunity for a more expanded operation and having persuaded a doubtful Tony Blair of the wisdom of a more aggressive campaign, he set about pushing back the rebels.

An RAF C-17 aircraft leaving northern France for Mali, yesterday. Credit: Reuters

The kidnapping of eleven British troops threatened to derail the whole adventure but a neat piece of work by the boys from Hereford soon had them out and within weeks the rebels were on the run.

Freetown was saved. Job done. It gave Tony Blair a taste for so called liberal interventionism.

Now the French are at it in Mali and there are reports suggesting that David Richards - now Sir and now Chief of the Defence Staff - is warning against any hasty British involvement on the ground.

Quite simply, he knows Mali is not Sierra Leone. The current conflict is of a far greater magnitude, the difficulties more pronounced and the stakes much higher.

The Islamist rebels in Mali are a very different threat from the Sierra Leonean “West Side Boys” wandering, drug crazed and drunk through the foliage outside Freetown

The former colonial power, France, is alive to the threat. The rapid deployment of fighter jets, helicopters and troops signify their concern, and it is a concern that overrides any worries about being seen as neo-colonial interference.

They would much rather African troops did the job, but at the moment they are not up to it.

A French Army officer talks to his Malian and Senegalese army counterparts in Bamako, Mali Credit: Joe Penney / Reuters

The French - now operating with the blessing of the UN - have saved the capital Bamako from being overrun but they may be heading for a very long involvement indeed.

The parallels with Afghanistan are apparent. The Taliban was allowed to take the capital Kabul in 1996 before the west awoke to the threat after 9/11.

Even then the US was distracted by the invasion of Iraq when arguably they should have prioritised Afghanistan.

It is the fear that Mali is the new Afghanistan that so energises France and increasingly the US.

It is quite likely that American drone strikes will soon begin .

Until recently Mali appeared to have little geo-political significance .

Yes, democracy was being derailed by separatist movements and the country was falling victim to food insecurity, Sahara desertification, climate change and an increasingly disaffected younger generation.

A truck carrying fighters from 'Movement for oneness and Jihad in West Africa' in Gao, northern Mali in March 2012. Credit: Reuters

But the north of the country has emerged as a haven for Islamic radicals encouraged and supported by a radical known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The insurgency was fuelled by huge supplies of weapons which found their way from Libya after the fall of Gadaffi.

The separatist insurgency coupled with coups and instability in Bamako was the perfect breeding ground for radical Islamists to flourish.

AQIM have imposed there own harsh version of Sharia law in areas they control. They are well organised and well trained.

The question is whether this is a quick and successful intervention by the French or whether it is the beginning of a far longer, broader and more significant conflict that will drag in Britain and America.

It all almost certainly makes any intervention in the Syrian civil war even less likely than it already was .

The reality is that for France, and the West, Mali matters.

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